Clean Water and Healthy Soils Across America

  • Cover Story
Crop3 North Shore Creek_MN_credit Courtney Celley-USFWS

As outdoor enthusiasts – whether we are hunters, anglers, hikers, campers, birders, or any of the myriad other Ikes who take to the outdoors – we are living in a period of relative abundance. Many wildlife species, once perilously depleted by habitat destruction and market hunting, are now thriving thanks to restoration efforts launched and funded by sportsmen and women. Landmark environmental laws from the 1970s have significantly cleaned up our air and waters. American farmers produce an abundance of food and fiber to meet our needs. We enjoy a network of public lands and waters that are the envy of the world, and outdoor recreation pumps an astounding $887 billion into the American economy every year.

We have come far since the days when sighting a turkey or deer track was a once-a-season highlight. Or when the Cuyahoga River regularly caught fire and smog enveloped our cities like a thick fog. In fact, we’ve come so far that it’s easy to gloss over the conservation problems we face today. However, assuming that the resources we’ve inherited from conservation leaders of the past will sustain themselves is a mistake – one that will inevitably lead to declines in water quality, soil health, habitat, and outdoor recreation in the future.

Damage to air and water quality continues – it’s just less visible (but no less dangerous) than when pollution flowed directly out of factory pipes and smokestacks. Grasslands and wetlands have been plowed and drained to make way for agriculture and other development, shrinking wildlife habitat and degrading water quality. Policy victories Izaak Walton League members fought for – including protections for  hunting, fishing, access to public lands, clean air and water –  face erosion at all levels of government.

To conserve the natural resources on which outdoor enthusiasts – and all Americans –depend, the League monitors public policy actions, educates members of Congress and other government officials, and engages our members in needed advocacy. At a time when the breakneck pace of life leaves little time for quiet contemplation in a duck blind or study of a wild trout’s rise to the evening hatch, it is critical for the League and our members to engage in the legislative process that will define our access to healthy natural resources for generations to come.

The League’s top policy priorities for 2018 focus on clean water, healthy soils, fish and wildlife habitat, and public lands.

Clean Water

Access to clean water – whether for drinking, fishing, or other outdoor needs – is a fundamental right for all Americans. Protecting clean water is the League’s highest priority.

Defending the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act of 1972 remains one of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws. The Act set water quality standards and established a system to regulate pollution, providing the foundation to restore thousands of miles of waterways and protect wildlife habitat in rivers, streams, and wetlands across the country. Unfortunately, Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 created confusion about Clean Water Act protections for small streams that provide drinking water to 117 million Americans as well as millions of acres of wetlands.

To provide certainty about which waters are – and are not – subject to Clean Water Act protections, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Water Rule in 2015. Backed by more than 1,200 scientific studies detailing the connectivity of our nation’s waters – plus the common-sense point that pollution upstream affects people, habitat, and wildlife downstream – the Clean Water Rule restored protections to small streams and some isolated wetlands. The League spent more than a decade working to restore these protections and fully supports the Clean Water Rule.

However, President Trump issued an executive order last year directing EPA and the Corps to repeal and replace the Clean Water Rule. In July 2017, the two agencies took formal action to repeal the Clean Water Rule. The League and 92 of our chapters and divisions signed onto a letter with other hunting, angling, and conservation groups expressing our strong opposition to repealing the Rule. The agencies are currently reviewing all the public comments on this topic, but we fully expect they will continue the repeal process.

Phase two – replacing the Clean Water Rule with new policy – is set to begin in 2018. The president’s executive order called for the agencies to use a very narrow lens to look at clean water protections. Specifically, it directed them to use late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s minority opinion in Rapanos v. United States (2006) as a framework to determine which waters would be protected by the Clean Water Act. Justice Scalia’s Rapanos opinion, which was not the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, would drastically limit waters covered by the Clean Water Act, protecting only streams that flow continuously all year and wetlands with a continuous surface connection to larger waters, such as rivers or lakes. Justice Scalia specifically stated in his minority opinion that the Clean Water Act should not protect streams that flow periodically or only following rain events, and his narrow definition of wetland protections would exclude prairie potholes and other critically important wetlands.

According to EPA, 60 percent of all streams in America do not flow continuously all year and as many as 20 million acres of wetlands would be at risk if Justice Scalia’s interpretation the Clean Water Act is adopted. Using this yardstick to measure which waters should be protected from pollution represents a significant step backwards. The League will vigorously oppose the adoption of a rule using Justice Scalia’s framework or any framework that is not supported by science, the Clean Water Act, and common sense. We will continue to mobilize our members, work with our partners, and educate decision makers about the importance of clean water.

Connecting Farming and Clean Water

Agricultural runoff (nutrients, chemicals, soil, and animal waste) and wetland losses are two of the most serious threats to clean water today. The Farm Bill is a natural vehicle for addressing these problems.

The Farm Bill authorizes most of the programs that farmers and ranchers depend on to make day-to-day decisions, from what crops to plant to which conservation measures to adopt. These decisions can drive solutions to conservation problems – or make water pollution, soil erosion, and loss of habitat worse. Programs designed to help agricultural producers improve their stewardship of natural resources have made the Farm Bill the largest source of funding for private lands conservation in the country.

Conservation Compliance: The League and our partners achieved a victory in the last Farm Bill by linking “conservation compliance” with subsidized crop insurance premiums for the first time since 1996. Conservation compliance is a common-sense agreement that farmers who receive taxpayer-funded subsidies will take simple measures to reduce soil erosion and protect wetlands, including not draining or filling wetlands to grow crops. Unfortunately, opponents have already started lobbying to de-couple conservation compliance from crop insurance premium subsidies in the coming Farm Bill. The League is working to ensure conservation compliance remains a basic requirement for farmers to obtain taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance premiums.

Wetland Protections: We are working to restore funding for wetland easement programs that provide incentives for farmers to protect wetlands – today and into the future. These easements are an absolutely critical tool for the long-term protection of prairie potholes and the abundance of wildlife that depend on them.

According to “The State of the Birds 2013: Report on Private Lands,” published by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (U.S. Committee), three-quarters of the wetlands remaining in the United States are located on private lands. That makes the Farm Bill a critical tool for conserving wetlands and their associated benefits. Wetlands protected through Farm Bill programs:

  • Provide habitat for migratory birds as well as fish and other wildlife
  • Improve water quality and recharge groundwater supplies
  • Provide flood protection for croplands and communities nationwide

However, the 2014 Farm Bill consolidated several programs that fund conservation easements to protect wetlands and grasslands and for farmland preservation, creating a single Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. Congress then sharply cut funding for the consolidated program, reducing the number of wetlands that can be protected each year. As a result, wetlands protected through these programs fell from a high of 246,000 acres in 2010 to just 39,604 acres in 2016. The League is working to restore funding in the Farm Bill to protect more wetlands and grasslands.

Buffer Strips: Another League priority is expanding and improving buffers that protect streams from agricultural runoff and erosion. Grass buffer strips planted along streams and wetlands filter chemicals, soil, and livestock waste that run off farm fields before they enter our waters. We are working to ensure Farm Bill conservation programs continue to fund buffer strips and focus this funding where it is needed most. We also support efforts to increase the acreage eligible for high-value water quality practices such as buffer strips and grass waterways.

Healthy Soils

The Dust Bowl days of the 1930s highlight what can happen when drought and wind act on soils that have been depleted of the organic matter and microscopic life that binds them together. Even with modern farming techniques, America is losing soil ten times faster than its natural replenishment rate. The League is working to ensure the 2018 Farm Bill helps farmers and ranchers regenerate America’s depleted soils.

Erosion Protection

The “Sodbuster” program requires producers who farm highly erodible lands to have conservation plans in place to reduce soil erosion if that farmer receives subsidies through the Farm Bill – it’s the soils component of “conservation compliance.” The League strongly supports this program and is working to ensure Sodbuster remains a basic requirement for farmers with highly erodible land through the new Farm
Bill. There is a push to require all farmers and ranchers receiving taxpayer subsidies –crop insurance, commodity payments, loans, and other Farm Bill benefits – to develop conservation plans, and the League supports this proposal as well.

Land and Soil Stewardship

While some programs pay farmers to take land out of production, the Farm Bill’s “working lands” programs promote conservation on lands used to grow crops or raise livestock. These programs help farmers and ranchers invest in practices that rebuild soil health, reduce runoff of soils and chemicals, and put better grazing systems in place. They can reward farmers and ranchers who provide the best stewardship of our soil, waters, and wildlife. The League is advocating for continued funding at current levels for the working lands programs. We also advocate for adding incentives for producers to implement conservation practices – such as cover crops, conservation crop rotations, and rotational grazing – that are proven to regenerate soils and improve water quality.

“Good Driver” Discount on Crop Insurance

The League is working with legislators and colleague groups to introduce a “good driver discount” that would reward producers who take proven steps to reduce crop loss risks. Building soil health makes farms more resilient to drought and better able to capture and hold heavy rains, which in turn reduces the risk of crop losses. However, these conservation practices are not recognized in calculations for crop insurance rates. The League believes that farmers who have reduced the risks for crop losses – and thus insurance payouts – should receive a discount on their crop insurance premiums, just like a “good driver discount” on auto insurance rates. Such a discount would encourage other producers to adopt similar practices.

Fish and Wildlife

By managing our natural resources in a sustainable way, we can ensure abundant fish and wildlife populations and maintain our wildlife-based traditions, including hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching.

Managing Farms for Wildlife

Farms and ranches cover 915 million acres of the United States – about 41 percent of our country. More than 60 percent of all U.S. land is in private hands. These privately owned lands have an enormous impact on wildlife habitat, and in many states, Farm Bill conservation programs are the largest source of funds available to protect and conserve wildlife habitat on private land. That’s important for ducks, pheasants, grouse, deer, pollinators, and other wildlife. It benefits outdoor recreation as well. The Farm Bill can also support state and tribal programs that provide free access for hunters, anglers, birders, and other outdoor recreationists to private lands, bringing recreation dollars and jobs to rural communities.

Because habitat is so vital for wildlife and outdoor recreation, the League supports allocating at least 10 percent of funding for Farm Bill working lands programs to practices that directly benefit fish and wildlife by restoring or conserving habitat in uplands, wetlands, and streams. We will also be working to raise the acreage cap on the Conservation Reserve Program, which incentivizes farmers to set aside marginal croplands for wildlife habitat. Finally, the League supports increased Farm Bill funding for state and tribal programs that provide incentives for landowners to enhance wildlife habitat on their farms and allow public recreational use.

Looking at Large Landscapes

Ikes have always possessed a keen ability to see beyond their own backyards. Early League members who were determined to conserve the natural resources along the upper Mississippi River – and pushed for a national refuge to do so – provided a road map for those of us who follow in their footsteps. Policies focused on water and wildlife affect entire ecosystems, and that interplay has to be carefully considered.

The Chesapeake Bay Program and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, both funded through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget, are vital to protecting and restoring large-scale ecosystems, and the League will defend full funding for these programs.

  • Almost two-thirds of Chesapeake Bay Program funds are provided directly to state and local partners for watershed restoration, protection, and monitoring. Unfortunately, the budget for this critical program continues to shrink, which means less work being done to improve water quality in the watershed and the Bay.
  • The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) drives wetland restoration in the Great Lakes basin, which helps build coastal resiliency to protect millions of Americans from flooding, conserve wildlife habitat, and safeguard drinking water sources. GLRI is a bulwark in the fight against invasive species in the Great Lakes, driving funds to federal and state agencies. Without it, the majority of funds used to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes would disappear.

The League will also advocate for funding of upper Mississippi River and Missouri River restoration programs through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget and ensure decisions on river management are focused on multiple uses, not just navigation.

  • The upper Mississippi River is a unique landscape that has been permanently altered by locks and dams. Balancing the role of navigation with restoration of natural functions requires that the Corps of Engineers and its federal and state partners receive enough resources to continue restoration efforts. These vital efforts have had success, and the upper Mississippi has begun to see habitat and wildlife thrive.
  • Channelization and impoundment have forever changed the face of the “Mighty Mo,” so the League is focused on restoring some of the river’s natural hydrology. Investing in restoration is vital to improving habitat for all fish and wildlife that rely on the river, fighting the spread of aquatic invasive species, and enhancing the Missouri River as a world-class outdoor recreation destination.

Public Lands

Americans enjoy ownership of a broad public estate that is unique in the world. Nowhere else on earth do a country’s citizens have access to as much land and water to hike, hunt, fish, camp, or just roam. These public lands are also home to stunningly intact landscapes that protect headwater streams that replenish our drinking water supplies and provide unbroken landscapes where threatened and endangered species can begin recovery.

Keeping Public Lands Public

The League has always been a champion of America’s public lands and will continue to do so in the coming months and years. Misguided attempts to transfer public lands to states – or even to private interests – strike at the heart of President Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of America as he set these special places aside. (Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, and 5 national parks. He also established 18 national monuments using the Antiquities Act of 1906. In total, Roosevelt set aside 230 million acres of public land.)

Arguments for transferring public lands present a false choice to the American public: that the federal government owns too much land and cannot manage it properly, and so states or other interests should take control. The truth is that states have proven over and over again what they do when they control public lands: they sell them. Whether they sell them because the next fire season might plunge the state treasury into red ink or simply because they have no interest in maintaining them, the track record is clear –and it results in the public losing access to once-public lands.

The League will continue our long-established policy of opposing the transfer of or loss of access to America’s public lands. In addition, we will oppose any attempts to weaken the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to declare some public lands as national monuments to protect special natural, cultural, or historic resources.

Outdoor Recreation Opportunities

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is another vital tool for public land managers. The Fund was created to permanently protect and provide access to some of America’s land, water, and recreation resources and is financed through royalty payments from offshore oil and natural gas drilling. The $900 million authorized by Congress for the Land and Water Conservation Fund is now less than 10 percent of the total revenue deposited into the U.S. Treasury each year from these oil and gas leasing receipts. Yet the Fund has only received the authorized $900 million once in its more than 50-year history. Congress has diverted more than 50 percent ($16.3 billion) of authorized LWCF funds for other purposes.

This loss of LWCF funding affects more than access to federal public lands. Grants through the program have helped acquire and develop boat ramps, state parks and develop thousands of playgrounds, soccer fields, and baseball diamonds in communities across the country. Full funding of LWCF is a League priority and we will continue to press for this important source of public lands funding.

Keeping Wilderness Wild

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions . . . .”

Yet every year, some members of Congress attempt to open wilderness to new methods of transportation specifically left out of The Wilderness Act or designate management activities for wilderness areas – such as road construction – that are inconsistent with this concept of wilderness. The League was an early supporter of The Wilderness Act and our members have adopted policy resolutions declaring that areas protected by the Act must retain the wild characteristics defined in the original legislation. Our members have long understood the value that wilderness – not just as a place but as an idea as well – gives to every American. As efforts to weaken protections for wilderness areas crop up in 2018, we will continue to oppose them.

Jared Mott, IWLA Conservation Director